Can you get any real work done or have any serious fun with “cloud computing?” Cloud computing is the latest incarnation of an old concept in computerdom, the use of remote computer services. Instead of using big, complex programs on your desktop computer or your organization's network server, and instead of needing lots of processing power and storage space at your location, with cloud computing you use resources offered over the Internet by a service provider.

The Internet, thus, is the “cloud.” The term “Internet computing” would be easier to understand than “cloud computing,” but the computer world has never been very good at coming up with clear terminology.

Cloud computing has its benefits. It can save money. Perhaps most important, it can also save time, since you delegate updating and troubleshooting software to the service provider.

Judging by the attention it receives from market research firms and the computer media, cloud computing is the latest big thing. Market research firm Gartner (www.gartner.com) just designated cloud computing for the second straight year as the top technology “you can't afford to ignore.” Cloud computing topped the company's list of top ten “strategic technology areas” last year as well.

Large companies stand to be most affected by cloud computing, but it also has benefits for smaller companies, home-based businesses and home and school users.

Currently about 30 percent of companies having more than 1,000 employees use cloud computing, according to David Michael Smith, a Gartner analyst. Other companies haven't yet made the move, says Smith, because of a lack of trust in quality, reliability and service. You are, after all, trusting that your Internet connection won't go down for any appreciable length of time and that computer resources from your service provider will be available when you need them.

Anybody can get a feel for cloud computing, for free, and even if you've never heard of the term before, you probably are already taking advantage of cloud computing in one way or another.

If you have a Web-based email account with Gmail (mail.google.com), Yahoo Mail (mail.yahoo.com) or Hotmail (www.hotmail.com) or if you've ever edited your photos with a photo sharing service such as Snapfish (www.snapfish.com) or Shutterfly (www.shutterfly.com), you've experienced the cloud. These services are free, supported by advertising or optional services that cost.

The most full-featured free cloud offering today is Google Apps (www.google.com/apps). As long as you have Internet access, Google Apps lets you use programs through your Web browser for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, website creation and private wikis. The latter are collections of Web pages designed to let anyone permitted to access them contribute or modify content, creating collaborative knowledge bases.

Another popular application for cloud computing is computer games. Without needing a high-performance computer, you can use the cloud to play state-of-the-art computer games with others from around the world. Such games by many different game publishers are available, among other places, from OnLive (www.onlive.com).

Less exciting, but more necessary, are cloud backup services. If you're using an Internet security program such as Symantec's Norton 360 (www.symantec.com) or McAfee Total Protection (www.mcafee.com), you already have access to such Internet-based backup services.

Internet service providers often include these services to subscribers for free as part of their subscription, but not all subscribers take advantage of them. Comcast, for instance, gives subscribers up to 2 gigabytes of space to back up files on Symantec's servers. Offsite backup, as opposed to backing up onsite, offers protection against fires, floods and theft in addition to crashed hard drives.

Specialized cloud services for large companies typically cost. Enterprise cloud leaders today, according to Gartner, are Amazon Web Services (aws.amazon.com) and Salesforce.com (www.salesforce.com) as well as Google. Over the next two years, Gartner projects that Microsoft Cloud Services (www.microsoft.com/cloud) and VM ware (www.vmware.com/solutions/cloud-computing) will become the leaders in enterprise cloud computing.

Among those who support it, cloud computing represents a paradigm shift no less significant than the move away from mainframe computers to PCs in the 1980s. Cloud computing is made possible by the increasing availability of high-bandwidth Internet access for individuals as well as organizations. Its proponents often use the analogy of the electricity grid. Just as with electricity, computer services are there when you need them, and if there's a charge, you pay for just what you use.

The jury is still out over whether cloud computing will replace traditional computing. For the most part, it appears to be most beneficial today for those who do a lot of traveling.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. Contact him at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.